Compressors, Always First in the Chain?
By John Dines – OE Product Manager
Pedalboard signal chain order. That old chestnut. If you’ve spent any time reading and worrying about what order to place your pedals in, you’ll know that there is a certain amount of “accepted” wisdom on the subject. There is very much an established “right way” to run your pedals and, while I won’t go into it all now, it shouldn’t be hard to find a great many heated discussions on this topic on your favourite guitar forum.
There are some aspects of this wisdom that make a lot of real-world sense. For example: if you want to distort your guitar and then apply delay and reverb cleanly like you would in a studio, you should place your delay and reverb pedals after your distortion. If you want to use vintage fuzz or wah pedals and preserve the interaction between the pedal and your guitar’s passive pickups, you must place those pedals before any buffers.
On the other hand, some of these “rules” are really just matters of taste. Do you like your phaser before your overdrive? Do you want your clean boost to add more distortion or more volume? And the one that’s closest to our hearts: where do you place the compressor in your signal chain?
The Official Textbook of Pedal Placement™ states that, apart from vintage fuzz and wah, compression should always be first in the chain. For typical guitar use – that is to say, using your compressor as an obvious effect – we certainly agree. Compression reduces the dynamic range of your signal, squashing the peaks and preventing any notes from jumping uncomfortably out of the mix. For clean sounds, like those used by Funk or Country players, this is just what you want – a nice, even clean tone without slicing anyone’s heads off.
If this is how you like to use your compressor, it will work best first in the chain. This is partly because the next pedal is likely to be an overdrive. Overdrive will also dramatically affect the dynamics of your signal, clipping the peaks and eliminating any difference between loud and quiet notes. As such, placing a compressor after your drive would not allow you to bring out all the snappy, funky bits of your playing – your overdrive has got rid of them all already! However, there is another approach to compression; one that comes from the studio…
It’s usual studio practice to plug a guitar into a great-sounding amp, stick a mic in front of it and record that signal. It’s also very common practice to add compression to that signal after the event, either as you record or at some point in the mixing process. Using much more subtle compression than you’d expect from a Funk player’s stompbox, a studio engineer will preserve the relationship between a guitar and an overdriven amp while keeping a consistent volume and presence in the mix – also adding the “everything is just better” effect that you can expect from a good compressor.
You can do the same thing on your pedalboard, either by placing your compressor in the FX loop of your amp, after a good overdrive pedal or, our favourite, using your compressor after a really great amp-in-a-box-style pedal, like the Origin Effects RevivalDRIVE series. Not only will this give you the “finished” guitar tone I described above – one that sounds like it’s straight off a hit record – but it also offers an advantage to players who like to ride the guitar’s volume control, always staying somewhere in the no man’s land between clean and dirty.
Many of the world’s more accomplished players prefer this technique to using an array of boosts and drives. It’s dynamic, expressive and musical but sometimes, especially in a more crowded mix, your tone can get a little lost as you turn down. This is where a compressor after your drive, preamp or amp simulator can really help. Because a compressor evens out the difference between loud and quiet, it will compensate for the volume drop you experience when you clean up your tone. This just isn’t possible with a compressor up front – you’d hit your drive pedal just as hard regardless of how you set your guitar volume, losing that all-important ability to clean up from the volume knob.
In developing our Cali76 compressors, we wanted to capture the sound of proper studio-grade compression in pedal form, and this works just as well before or after your overdrive sounds. It may well be that you like to keep things traditional and run your compressor up front – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That said, you might be sitting there thinking “why doesn’t my guitar sound like my favourite records?” and running a compressor after your drives could well be the answer. Try it! Compression is the number 1 most important effect in any studio – you might just find that it’s the most important pedal on your board too.